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Trump Taj Mahal strike raises questions about casino's future

| Friday, July 1, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Striking union members walk a picket line outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on Friday, July 1, 2016. Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union went on strike against the casino, which is owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
Striking union members walk a picket line outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, N.J. on Friday, July 1, 2016. Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union went on strike against the casino, which is owned by billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
Bob McDevitt, left, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE casino workers union, encourages a picketer outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City N.J. on Friday, July 1, 2016. The union went on strike against the casino, having failed to reach a new contract with it.
Bob McDevitt, left, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE casino workers union, encourages a picketer outside the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City N.J. on Friday, July 1, 2016. The union went on strike against the casino, having failed to reach a new contract with it.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — A strike against Atlantic City's most vulnerable casino on the biggest moneymaking weekend of the year raised fresh questions about the future of the Trump Taj Mahal.

Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union went on strike Friday against the casino, which was opened in 1990 by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump but now belongs to a different billionaire, Carl Icahn.

Icahn's management team said the union seems “hell-bent on trying to close this property” and pointed out that he has spent $86 million keeping the Taj Mahal alive through bankruptcy and $150 million improving the Tropicana, which he also owns.

The Taj Mahal, which remains open and was to host a concert by '80s metal band Whitesnake on Friday night, ranks next to last in Atlantic City in terms of the amount of money it wins from gamblers each month. It narrowly escaped closing during its most recent turn through bankruptcy court.

The union called the strike after being unable to agree on a contract that restored health care and pension benefits that a bankruptcy judge terminated in October 2014. It reached new contracts Thursday with four of the five casinos it had targeted: Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's and the Tropicana.

“All we want is a fair contract,” said Pete Battaglini, a bellman at the Taj Mahal. “We just want what everybody else in the city has. We're not asking for the moon, just the same.”

Battaglini said paying for health insurance on his own through the Affordable Care Act has left him in dire financial straits.

“I have two daughters in college that I'm paying for. And having to pay for my own health insurance, it's draining,” he said. “You have to make choices: Do I pay the bills this month, the health insurance premium or the tuition? It has totally changed my life.”

He was one of about 1,000 members who began walking off the job at 6 a.m., joining fellow union members in protest on the Boardwalk. The striking workers include those who serve drinks, cook food, carry luggage and clean hotel rooms. Dealers and security personnel are not included in the walkout.

Contract talks broke off early Friday, and union President Bob McDevitt said no further talks are scheduled.

“Workers in Atlantic City understand that there was a social compact in 1976 when gaming was first approved for Atlantic City: We will give you a license to make money, but the jobs have to be good, middle-class jobs,” he said. “At the Taj Mahal, they're poverty level.”

He noted that the Tropicana settled its contract Thursday.

“It's telling that workers at the Trop are elated, and their co-workers at the Taj Mahal are on strike today,” he said. “I don't understand why they do this.”

Tony Rodio, the Tropicana's president who also runs the Taj Mahal, said casino ownership “presented good-faith, concrete progressive proposals” in an effort to restore some employee benefits, but union negotiators rejected them.

“They are hurting their own and everybody else during the busiest time of the year,” Rodio said.

The casino pressed management into service, performing work that striking union members had done, including handling luggage at the hotel desk. Alan Rivin, the casino's general manager, said the Taj Mahal “is open for business and fully functional,” ready to serve guests through the busy July Fourth weekend.

The bankruptcy filing and the benefit terminations at the Taj Mahal happened five years after Trump relinquished control of the casino and its parent company, Trump Entertainment Resorts.

Aside from a 10 percent stake in the company for the use of his name that was wiped out in bankruptcy, Trump has had no involvement with the company since 2009.

The last time Local 54 waged a strike, in 2004, the walkout lasted 34 days.

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